One Folk Song Fueled Two Different Bob Dylan Songs
Revisiting Dylan's 1960s work
Read enough about folk music and you’ll eventually immerse yourself in the disparate ways that different singers have taken different songs and transformed them. There are plenty of ways to delve into folk music in history and practice, from reading the work of musical historians on the subject to seeking out conversations with musicians whose own work has dovetailed with traditional songs.
If you’d like to zero in on the discographies of single artists, there’s often plenty to be found there as well. Earlier this fall, the New York Times explored the life and work of bluegrass musician Alice Gerrard, described therein as “one of the few living links to American folk musicians alive during the 19th century.”
Another musician with plenty of ties to folk music is, of course, Bob Dylan. In a recent article for Far Out, Jack Whatley ventured into Dylan’s musical history — and to the way in which one folk song ended up shaping two different Dylan songs.
The song in question is “Scarborough Fair” — which some listeners may know from Simon & Garfunkel’s version, which was itself influenced by the folk singer Martin Carthy. As Whatley writes, Carthy’s version of the song had an impact on Dylan, and was an influence on the melody of Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country.” Elements of “Scarborough Fair” can also be heard in Dylan’s song “Boots of Spanish Leather.”
While the melodies in question might be decades old — if not older — the practice also brings to mind more contemporary songwriting processes as well. There’s not too much distance between utilizing riffs and melodies from an existing song in the context of 1960s Dylan and the more contemporary practice of sampling, when it comes down to it. Sometimes, the times aren’t necessarily a-changing.
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